Chapter 1 - Play Going
( Originally Published Early 1928 )
WHEN I was a boy a constant visitor at my father's house was Gustave Garcia, son of Manuel Garcia the centenarian teacher of singing, grandson of the great Garcia for whom Rossini composed "The Barber of Seville," and nephew to Malibran and Pauline Viardot. Viardot, who made her debut in the same year as the great tragedienne, Rachel, lived to a great age. I remember that Garcia could never mention the old lady without alluding to her striking ugliness—"like a horse" —and dwelling upon her extraordinary distinction of manner and delicate wit. She was the life-long friend of Turgenev. Malibran, whose husband was De Beriot, the violinist and composer of pieces for the violin, died the year before Queen Victoria came to the throne. She broke a. blood vessel singing in the church which is now the Manchester Cathedral. It was with a thrill that we youngsters heard Garcia's "My aunt used to say .." introducing some precept of the great artist who had been fifty years in her grave and to whom De Musset had written the stanzas in the French poetry book.
Garcia and my father were as young men apprenticed to the same wholesale linen-draper, and spent some three years together in a warehouse before deciding that linen-draping was not good enough and that there were better worlds than St. Paul's Churchyard. My father chose Manchester, Garcia Milan. My acquaintance with my father's friend dated from my seventh year, and with him I connect recollection of my first domestic "scene." The old boy—for so, affectionately, we called him always—arrived late from London, and about ten minutes before the guests at the dinner-party which my parents were giving in his honour. The reader must understand that a provincial dinner-party in the 'eighties was a solemn affair connoting ardours and complexities of preparation. Two days before the party a voluminous and authoritative lady would descend to the nether regions and take charge; there was immense unwrapping of silver and polishing of glass, and about four in the afternoon a waiter from my father's club would with unsuspected napery from my mother's store-cupboard and flowers from the nurseryman's give to the dining-table an air of strange magnificence. My father and mother were upstairs dressing, having left instructions that their chief guest should be conducted to his room immediately upon arrival. They should have known better. Espying me in the hall, the old boy insisted on being taken into the dining-room to "look at the lie of the land," actually to inspect the claret. Now there happened to hang over the fire-place an engraving of a battle-piece by Rubens which, to Garcia's eye, needed cleaning. "Let's have it down, boy," he said. And in two minutes, de-spite all objections, the picture was out of its frame, the epergne was removed from the dinner-table, the old boy's coat was off, and he was hard at work with india-rubber for the mount and bread crumbs for the picture. Battalions of servants flew upstairs to fetch the higher powers, and my mother arrived on the scene in tears and at the very moment when our starchiest guests were being ushered into the drawing-room. Garcia could not understand apology or the need of it, and my mother had to find what consolation she might in my father's explanation in which I heard for the first time the word "temperament." Later in the evening Garcia made amends with some glorious airs from Mozart and Lulli, concluding, as he always did, with Gounod's exquisite "Au Printemps," one of the few first-rate things of that intensely second-rate master.
For many years I associated Garcia with Sundays and a more orderly dinner-table. I come of Nonconformist stock, and every Sunday morning was forced to attend divine ratiocination in the ugliest building ever put up to the glory of God and the shame of an architect. There was a barber's shop next door, where pale and clammy little boys destroyed their thin hands on the stubble of navvies re-covering from Saturday night's debauch. My mind still reels at recollection of pavements newly spittle-strewn and the stench of stale fish. I used to think that five little boys in sailor-suits made a ridiculous procession, and that the street-urchins laughed at us as we passed. I think so still. Arrived in chapel we had to endure long, extempore prayers and even longer extempore sermons in which a half-starved and wholly subjugated minister thanked the Creator for the great artists whose works, could he have understood them, would have left him boggling in amazement. This weekly torture, which was a subtle compound of boredom and exasperation, ended only when the re-formed procession had arrived home again, and continued for twenty years. But my father, when he was not chapel-going, was a man of considerable culture. He took the art of acting seriously, if not the theatre, and would spend Sunday's dessert-hour telling us of the great players of the 'forties, 'fifties and 'sixties. We were allowed one visit to the play a week, but even on those nights the front door was closed and locked at eleven although Peter Street, where the Manchester theatres were, was twenty minutes away by the speediest of two-horse trams. (I never saw the end of Hamlet until I was out of my teens.) It was Garcia who ultimately secured for us an extension of half-an-hour. My father had been relating how as a boy under pretext of attending a lecture on astronomy he had run up to London from his home in Horsham to see Macready in Virginias. Garcia chuckled. "In future, old friend," he said, "you will lock the door at half-past eleven, and give these young dogs a chance!" And from that time onward the rule was modified.
It is to those Sunday discussions that I trace my love of the theatre, of acting, of actors. At the age of fourteen I had intimate knowledge of the characteristics of players who to the present generation are hardly a name-players like G. V. Brooke, who was drowned in the wreck of the London after exhibiting a quality of heroism which prompted Professor Morley's dry encomium: "Though he could not act Shakespeare, he must have been a noble fellow." I could fill the whole of this little essay with recollection of my father's table-talk. Sufficient if I say that among the actors upon whom he dwelled most were Barry Sullivan, Fechter (whom he thought over-rated), Samuel Phelps, Charles Mathews, Alfred Wigan and Little Robson. Of Irving he would say' that, devoid of feeling for tragedy, he was the greatest actor in melodrama the English stage had known, holding more pathos in his little finger than Fechter possessed in his whole body, and that he was to boot a surprisingly fine comedian. It is from my father that I derive my knowledge of Irving's Macaire, Jingle, Hamlet, Vanderdecken, Charles, and many other parts which he had abandoned before my theatre-going days. Of actresses he spoke principally of Helen Faucit and Ristori. In the matter of plays I got to know, without seeing them, every detail of The Hunchback, Belphegor, Plot and Passion, The Lady of Lyons, London Assurance, Masks and Faces. When Garcia was with us the talk was largely of opera, of Norma and La Sonnambula, of Mario and Grisi, Titiens and Lablache.
I want the reader to gather the significance of all this. Here was a family living not only in Manchester but in a suburb of that grey, calico-bound city, and having for its most frequent visitor a direct descendant of the most talented artistic family Europe has ever produced. The reader must know-and I promise to cut these personal matters as short as possible—that my grandmother, a music-mistress and a widow dying of cancer, denied herself every luxury and almost the means of existence to enable her to send my mother and her sister to school in Paris and Heidelberg. It will be gathered that my grandmother was something of a martinet. Certainly her spirit descended to her daughter who made every one of her children practise piano or violin for one hour before breakfast every morning of their lives. We were taken religiously to the Halle Concerts, made to speak French and to learn French poetry. (German found her more relenting.) Imagine, therefore, the effect upon young oven strained minds of the lion-headed, self-willed, strictly unaccountable old man, whose moustache prickled horribly when he kissed us, whose manners were atrocious, who on holidays spent with us fished hopelessly and bicycled ludicrously. Yet it was for his grandfather that Rossini composed his opera, and for his aunts that De Musset wrote poems and a great novelist sighed. Malibran's husband was the very De Beriot through whose Seventh Concerto my second brother was struggling. Garcia would tell us how enthralling some dead and gone diva had been in Lucia, and did I not grapple every morning for an hour with Thalberg's awe-struck paraphrase?
We were, I repeat, a Nonconformist family, yet every Sunday one subject and one subject only defrayed the conversation—the theatre!
The poet was not the only person to make the discovery that we are not cotton-spinners all. We got that out of our own heads, and tacitly assumed that beyond the Manchester Exchange there was a world so rare and disturbing that from one Sunday to another we were forbidden to think of it. We were allowed to go to concerts without question, and to as many as we had pocket-money for; but the theatre, with the exception of the Shakespeare productions of Mr. Benson, was always the occasion for diplomacy. Yet that in which we were allowed a minimum of practical indulgence was my father's one and only topic. Six days in the week he shut the door on Paradise but on the seventh flung it wide open. Now what theatre does the reader suppose that we discussed? The answer is: Any and every theatre, except the intellectual. My father, who would not have the telephone in his house, never entered a motor-car and refused to believe that anybody else could, should, or might make use of these inventions, stoutly denied the existence of the Intellectual Theatre. He laid it down also that the intellectual actor is an actor who cannot act. Temperament, he said, and not brains is the whole basis of the player's art. It was maintained of a lady in one of Shakespeare's plays that though she could guess what temperance should be, she knew not what it was. The average Englishman neither knows, guesses, or cares what temperament may be, except in so far as apprehension may enable him to avoid it. Temperament is the antithesis of all that is meant by Eton and Harrow, and there can be no doubt that Arnold of Rugby would have preferred diphtheria in the school. "I think," said Hogarth to Horace Walpole, "that it is owing to the commonsense of the English that they have not painted better." "Fists and not fiorituri" should be the national motto. You cannot upper-cut the other fellow with a sonnet, and an ode to the chin never knocked anybody out. The Englishman's view of art or rather the temperamental side of art, is represented by the dying Sir Anthony Gloster:
"Harrer an' Trinity College ! I ought to ha' sent you to sea
But I stood you an education, an' what have you done for me?
The things I knew was proper, you wouldn't thank me to give,
And the things I knew was rotten, you said was the way to live.
For you muddled with books an' pictures, an' china an' etchin's au' fans,
And your rooms at college was beastly —more like a whore's than a man's."
Bravo, England !